Iconic as the home of Florida’s tallest waterfall, Falling Waters State Park is a showcase for Florida geology. The park sits atop a high ridge, offering steep slopes on its short but delightful trail system and scenic views, when the leaves are few, from the picnic area and campground to lower elevations. The highlight of the interpretive trail system – which showcases longleaf pine and slope forest habitats – is the Sinkhole Trail, where you can stare into the gaping maws of a series of sinkholes, one of which is where the waterfall splashes into the deep abyss.
Length: Up to 2 miles
Lat-Long: 30.725423, -85.528721
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bug factor: low
Restroom: at the trailhead
While dogs are permitted along the trails, I’d advise against taking them on the Sinkhole Trail because of the dropoffs off the boardwalk—and the number of squirrels that will tempt your dog to follow. Visit in spring to enjoy the showy and fragrant blossoms of Florida azalea. There is a large playground at the trailhead.
Take I-10 exit 120, Chipley, and drive 0.7 mile south on SR 77. Turn left on CR 77A (State Park Rd) and continue to the end of the road to the park entrance. After paying your entrance fee, follow the road to where it ends, and park near the picnic pavilion and playground.
The trailhead is well marked right next to the playground, with a steeply sloping footpath guiding you downward to the main reason this park gets a lot of visitors—the deep cylindrical sinkhole that swallows a waterfall. You hear it well before you see it, reaching a trail junction atop a bluff at a split-rail fence. Turn left to start down the Sinkhole Trail. If you can stand the suspense, turn left first and walk away from the sound of rushing water to make a loop around a series of very deep sinkholes that provide windows into the underground stream fed by the waterfall.
Keep to the left at the fork to walk clockwise around the boardwalk Notice how the sides of each sinkhole are funnel-shaped and filled with leaves. You’ll see some outcroppings of rock in some of the sinkholes, deeper into the sinkhole’s throat. To your right, a natural bridge dense with resurrection fern has formed between two sinkholes that have almost, but not quite, merged into one. I’m always amazed by the size and age of the trees that tower over each sinkhole, indicating that their current configurations have been stable for a long, long time. As you loop around, you’re in the deep shade of a bluff forest, with towering hickories, oaks, and Southern magnolia. Most of the sinkholes are encircled by the boardwalk trail, but one outlier on the left has a massive Southern magnolia above it.
The loop ends after 0.3 mile and you return to the trail intersection. Head down the boardwalk and take the right to descend into Falling Waters Sink, the crown jewel of this park. Landings provide two different perspectives on the waterfall. Notice how different this sinkhole is from all the others? No one excavated that almost perfectly circular cylindrical shaft. It’s a solution pipe, a specialized type of sinkhole that forms at an intersection of joints within the bedrock. There are quite a few of these around Florida, but this is the only one you can easily access. Over time, the waterfall assists in expanding the width of the hole. The falls were home to a grist mill during the Civil War and a distillery shortly thereafter.
Climb back up the stairs and make a right to climb up the staircase up the hill to the Wiregrass Trail. At the top of the hill, the boardwalk continues, with a side boardwalk off to the right. Skip that; you’ll come back to it later. The boardwalk crosses a deep gash in the landscape, a ravine slicing through the clayhills to feed water down into the sinks. In spring, you’ll smell the fragrance of wild azalea before you see it. The boardwalk ends, and the trail follows a fenceline. There’s an exhibit about oil drilling (yep, here too!) in the early 1900s. You’re on the edge of a longleaf pine forest, with tall pines towering above and to the left, and the slope forest habitat dropping off to the right.
After half a mile, the trail reaches the edge of a small lake created to enable a consistent flow of water to the waterfall. The trail turns right to cross a berm created for the reservoir, and you can see a swimming area off on the far shore to your left. Rounding the lake, the trail reaches the swimming area and the junction with the Terrace Trail, which leads up to the campground, perched on the ridge above. If you’re staying in the campground, or just want to enjoy the splendor of the longleaf pine forest, take a side trip on it – it’s a mile round trip.
This is your turnaround point. Head on back around the lake, past the oil exhibit, and once you’re on the boardwalk again, take the first left. This boardwalk drops you down into the ravine, providing a nice view of the creek that feeds the waterfall, and up-close encounters with wild azalea in spring. The trail rises up into longleaf pine habitat on the opposite side of the ravine, and turns right, continuing along the edge of the ravine to complete the loop above the waterfall. Scramble down for one last look, if you like, and head back uphill to complete your walk.